In the latest in this series of feature-length interviews with independent publishers, set in our imaginary poetry theatre pub somewhere in Lambeth, we spoke to Todd Swift, the founder of Eyewear Publishing…
Hello there, Todd! What are you drinking?
Todd: London Pride.
How long has Eyewear Publishing been running?
Todd: Three years and one month, this December 2014.
What were some of the practical things you did to get started?
Todd: We started with a grant from a Dutch benefactor slash eccentric. There is a lot to do in the beginning – create a website which Mike Kavanagh, the Oxford poet, did very well; and I created a special design look for the house style with artist Edwin Smet; and of course, we went to an accountant and a lawyer, and created a company, opened bank accounts; got chequebooks and cards and letterhead; and then recruited some amazing staff, especially Maddy Pickard, who was our brand strategist, and Holly Hopkins, who was a brilliant Managing Editor for our first two years. We also then got a great Sales team, in Signature, and a very supportive Distributor, Central.
Does your personal background lend itself to being an independent publisher?
Todd: I have been a poet, and poetry editor, for 30 years, so I knew what a press should and shouldn’t do for its poets and their books, and I wanted to try and offer a very top level small press experience for our poets, and readers.
Where does the name come from?
Todd: It is a pun that no one gets. Too much reading leads to eye-wear, or eye-strain – it of course refers also to my long-running blog (ten years, 2 million page views) called Eyewear; and, as well, my love of wearing, and collecting, eyeglasses.
Could you describe the sort of poetry you publish?
Todd: I’d like to think we publish the sort of poetry all the best publishers could or should be publishing – that is, the very best new and innovative poetry from anywhere in the world, from emerging and major poets, in all languages. We have also started publishing litcrit (Mark Ford) and novels (Sumia Sukkar, Alfred Corn).
How are you different from other independent publishers?
Todd: We are not so different, except perhaps most of our books are in hardcover, and we are very well distributed into book shops. We also have a certain British wit going. I like to be slightly cheeky at times. And we are open to the avant-garde and the formalist traditions equally.
On average, how many books do you sell in a year?
Todd: Not enough. But between 200 and 450 of each title on average.
What have been some of your biggest successes so far?
Todd: We have had a book (The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted The War) adapted by BBC Radio 4, and selected as a Pick of the Week; and Illicit Sonnets was a 2013 Observer Book of the Year. The new Mark Ford book of essays is a London Review of Books Christmas Pick for 2014.
What’s the best thing you’ve found from the unsolicited pile?
Todd: A brilliant novel we hope to publish next year.
How important is the physical book design for you?
Todd: Very. We use TJ International printers – they also print books for Yale, and Faber, etc. We use the best paper we can, and do hardcover publishing whenever possible. Edwin Smet is very careful to design each book so it stays true to our modernist minimalist style, but also plays with colour and design in a witty and likeable way. They look and feel very European, very sophisticated, and I love how our books form a collectible whole, a library of cool-looking, wonderfully written books.
Could you describe your editing process? And how long does it take start to finish?
Todd: Pretty standard. Myself or one of our assistant editors works closely with the poets for 6 months to a year, we get a version we like, get it typeset, then make final corrections and edits, then get it proofread (several times), then away we go.
What’s your submissions policy?
Todd: I am always curious to see what someone is writing, so try us, though we are officially relatively closed to new submissions for 2015 now – except for our Melita Hume Poetry Prize, for best first collection from someone 35 years old or under living in Britain or Ireland – our judge this coming year is Toby Martinez de las Rivas. Emily Berry selected Amy Blakemore last year.
What are some basic mistakes people make when submitting to you?
Todd: Sending a book before it is ready. Or sending a hugely inflated bio note. Essentially, there are no mistakes for us, we are open. I don’t like to get submissions from people who clearly don’t read our authors.
Where do you look for new writers?
Todd: In magazines, anthologies, readings, on the net, buzz.
What advice would you give to poets today trying to get published?
Todd: Don’t rush. Start with a pamphlet. An MA or MFA or PhD in writing or poetics, or both, can help. Read a lot. Much more than you do. Buy books and support small presses.
How do you pay your writers? How does remuneration work?
What is your approach to marketing and promotion?
Todd: I’d say standard – launches at great shops, review copies, sending to prizes, Facebook, blogs, twitter, some ads.
Do you make any money from publishing?
Todd: Poetry sells very poorly.
What would help? Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for independent publishers?
Todd: I think poets should buy more books, more patrons should come forward, and best-selling novelists could also help. I am not sure how much the state can afford. The NHS needs help too, as do people without proper housing.
Do you work full-time as a publisher?
Todd: No. I am a full-time academic. I rely on a small expert team, at the moment, this is Edwin, my new Managing Editor, Cate Myddleton-Evans, Mike Kavanagh, and, sometimes, Interns.
What do you think is a suitable second occupation?
Todd: Anything that brings in money.
Has your work suffered from a diversion of energy into other employments or is it enriched by it?
Todd: My work as a poet has suffered, yes. I don’t write much at the moment. Or not enough.
Who distributes your books and where can I buy them?
Todd: Central, in the UK. SPD in USA. You can buy them at Amazon, on our website, and in good bookshops across the UK, such as Foyle’s and Waterstones and Blackwell’s.
What other indie publishers do you like?
Todd: There are quite a few I admire – KFS, Nine Arches, Seren, Salt, Penned In the Margins, Shearsman, Charles Boyle’s CB editions, come to mind, as doing excellent work.
How optimistic are you about the future of independent publishing? Are you satisfied with your own solutions to the problems it currently faces?
Todd: Not very optimistic. Unless poets and poetry lovers start buying more books, we will end up with fewer small presses, and more poetry published mostly or only online and digitally. Not so bad, unless you believe, as I do, in the magical connection between the reader and a book on paper.
Do you have anything to add about e-books / Amazon / the Internet that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?
Todd: It’s all been said, Amazon is a necessary evil. Poets demand to be sold there, so they tend to cause the problem they also complain about.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own independent publishing business today?
Todd: Don’t do it, unless you have at least £100,000 in the bank, and are prepared to lose a lot of money, and some friends, along the way. For everyone you publish, you turn down a hundred, or a thousand.
Tell me something about being an independent publisher that most people don’t know.
Todd: It is sometimes a fun and rewarding thing to do. You are actually doing a Mitzvah – bringing something good into the world that wasn’t there before. You are a midwife to a beautiful book. There is nothing more good than a book, regardless of its contents. Books are civilisation. You can’t read and kill at the same time, at least not easily.